European World Cup Playoffs: Four Things To Watch

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By then end of the day Tuesday, the World Cup participants from Europe will be decided. Here are the four things you to be looking out for.

Ronaldo v. Zlatan II

World football has made a lot of this battle and with good reason – Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two behemoths of the game. And on Tuesday one of them will find himself condemned to a summer of watching the 2014 World Cup on the couch. The edge right now is in Ronnie’s favor, after his header was the decisive goal in Portugal’s 1-0 victory last Friday in Lisbon.

Most seem to think that’s that and Portugal has run away with this thing. But that’s a mistake that Ibra has pounced on countless times throughout his career. Give him the excuse and he’ll do it again. Especially when buoyed by the home crowd in Solna and especially when his side aren’t supposed to win.

Which they’re not. Portugal are hands-down the better side, which is precisely (and ironically) what has put them in the current predicament of needing to qualify through a play-off. Brace yourself.

Tough Times In France

It’s nice to have France around if for nothing else but a reminder that no matter how bad things are with your national team, they could be a heck of a lot worse. Despite having talent for days, Les Bleus screwed the pooch last week when they dropped the first leg of their playoff to 0-2 at the Ukraine.

To most people the result, while unfortunate, wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially considering the second leg is in Paris. But to the French, it’s curtains, as only 16% of the public (as surveyed in Le Parisien) believe Les Bleus can advance to the 2014 World Cup.

16%? That’s disgraceful.

With that pathetic amount of confidence, perhaps France should lose and end all of the misery that team has caused since their boycott antics back in South Africa 2010. Ask any good Irishman and they you France shouldn’t have had that honor either – but that’s a whole other piece of crepe.

Go On, Iceland!

If you have a heart then you have to support those loveable blondes to the north, Iceland, as they take on Croatia. Strákarnir okkar (Our boys) managed a 0-0 draw in Reykjavik meaning it’s all to play for in Zagreb on Tuesday. While winning away will be an uphill battle for Iceland, Croatia’s previous home form will give the underdogs confidence as the Croats previously lost to Scotland and Belgium during home turf qualifiers.

If Iceland do succeed in winning they will become the least populous country (at 320,000 inhabitants) ever to play at a World Cup. Fascinating stuff.

Not Your Father’s Greece

So long the butt of all stylistic football jokes in Europe, Greece appear to have finally shed their brutally defensive style in favor of flair and goals. Last Friday they were a joy to watch, suffocating the Romanian defense with clever through-balls and inventive play that resulted in three well-worked goals and a 3-1 victory.

The effort marked the first time the Greeks scored more than twice in a competitive game since a 3-1 win over Malta in June 2011. Oh, how they times they are a changing! And while they may fall into a more defensive scheme to preserve the precious lead, don’t be surprised if come June people are using words like “quality” when describing Greece.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit much. But they are a much improved side and worth a watch, if only for a quick bit.

Conte praises Hazard’s style, wouldn’t want him to be “more selfish”

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Antonio Conte made two bold decisions on Saturday afternoon as his Chelsea side prepared to take on Tottenham in their FA Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu shines with Saints as he prepares for Chelsea return ]

The Italian manager has been known for his innovation and risk-taking in the past, but many were critical of the 47-year-old when his team sheet came out ahead of the match.

Conte left key attacking duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench, allowing out-of-favor striker Michy Batshuayi and Pedro to get the starting nod.

Although Hazard nor Costa saw the field for the opening hour, the former made his presence known when he was summoned by Conte in the second half.

Often times Hazard has been known as a facilitator, someone that can pick apart defenses with his tremendous foot skills and clever passing. But the Belgian international has also shown his capabilities of scoring on a regular basis as well, which has prompted great interest from other giant clubs around Europe.

When Conte was asked about Hazard and if his attacker should be more selfish, the Italian gave an emphatic “NO” as his response.

“No, no, no, absolutely not,” Conte said. “I don’t think that a player like Messi is a selfish player. The first target for every great champion is to play for the team and to put your talent into the team. If you do this, the team [increases] your talent.

“The best players in the world don’t exist without a team. For me, it’s sad to listen to this, that a player must ‘be more selfish’ to reach the top level. That’s very sad. It’s not my idea of football and I will never understand this. Never, never. In my team, I don’t want selfish players.

“I prefer to lose a game than to have a selfish player. For me, I don’t want this and I can’t accept this. I don’t want my club to buy me a selfish player one day. Never. No.”

Newcastle joins Brighton in promotion to Premier League

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Two sides have now booked their trips to England’s top flight after Newcastle United rattled off its 27th win of the season.

[ MORE: Oriol Romeu — The perfectly poised destroyer ]

The Magpies earned a decisive 4-1 victory over Preston North End on Monday afternoon at St. James’ Park as the second-place side ensured its finish inside the top two in the English Championship.

Newcastle joins already-promoted club Brighton & Hove Albion, who currently sit atop the Championship on 92 points.

Ayoze Perez paced the hosts with goals on both sides of halftime, while Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie also converted for Newcastle.

U.S. Men’s National Team defender DeAndre Yedlin was on the bench for the Magpies but didn’t feature in Monday’s match.

The third and final team to be promoted from the Championship will be decided by the league’s annual promotion playoff, which is held at the end of the season and contested by four sides that finish third through sixth position.

As it stands, Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham occupy the four playoff positions.

Marseille making Olivier Giroud top transfer target this summer

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Marseille did well to bring in one star this season but could the French side have another trick up its sleeve this summer?

Sky Sports is reporting that the Ligue 1 club is preparing to sign Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud over the summer and the sixth-place side is “willing to pay up to £20m (roughly $25 million).

Marseille made a splash this season when the club re-signed Dimitri Payet, who was playing with Premier League side West Ham at the time.

The team does boast several quality attacking options such as Payet and Bafetimbi Gomis, but Giroud could serve as an ideal target man in the Marseille attack.

Prior to joining the Gunners in 2012, Giroud starred for Montpellier and with a potential link-up in the attack with a creator like Payet, it could present a dangerous attacking threat to the rest of Ligue 1.

Giroud, 30, has scored 95 goals in all competitions since arriving in London with Arsenal.

Report: Chicharito talks heating up with Los Angeles FC

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We’ve seen MLS teams make major splashes in the past, and one of next year’s newcomers could be a really big draw if they can manage to seal the deal on a Mexican international.

[ MORE: Schweinsteiger shares thoughts on MLS and more in interview ]

According to Metro New York, Los Angeles FC is continuing its talks with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez about a potential deal that would prove massive in terms of MLS spending.

While LAFC won’t debut in MLS until 2018, the club could potentially make the Mexico striker the highest-paid player in league history with an average salary of roughly $10 million.

The 28-year-old Hernandez currently plays in Germany with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where he’s plied his trade since joining the club during the 2015/16 season.

Additionally, the former Manchester United man has dominated the international scene for El Tri, scoring 46 goals in 90 appearances for the CONCACAF nation.